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Turning Your Slow-Lane
Turkey Into a Roadrunner

by Mark Bittman

It's almost a given that both time and oven space are at a premium on Thanksgiving. Both of those problems are caused by the same animal: the turkey. With an average cooking time of three hours and a size that fills even a big oven, turkey can be trouble.

Yet it's hard to argue with tradition. Otherwise sophisticated cooks remain wedded to canned sweet potatoes with marshmallows, packaged stuffing and canned cranberry sauce. Trying to wean them from the turkey to something equally festive but more flavorful (capon, goose, pork roast and standing rib all come to mind) is akin to trying to sell a tofu dog at Yankee Stadium: there will be takers, but don't bet against the norm.

There is at least one way, however, to cut the cooking time of the average turkey by about 75 percent while still presenting an attractive bird. That is to split it down the middle before roasting. The technique, commonly used with chickens (and sometimes called spatchcocking), is simple. You turn the bird backside up and use a sharp, sturdy knife to cut along both sides of the backbone, where it meets the ribs. The bones there are thin enough for the process to be easy and straightforward, and it usually takes less than five minutes. Turn the bird over, press on the breastbone, and you've reduced an eight-inch-high monster to something under four inches (you can even roast the turkey on one oven rack and something else, simultaneously, on the other).

You've also exposed the legs, which need more cooking than the breasts, to more heat you'll notice how they stick out and allowed the wings to shield the breast. Roasted at 450 degrees (with the heat moderated if the bird browns too fast), a 10-pound bird will be done in about 45 minutes. Really. It will also be more evenly browned (all of the skin is exposed to the heat), more evenly cooked, and moister than birds cooked conventionally.

This method of roasting precludes stuffing the turkey. (Because I've long maintained that stuffing is best cooked outside of the bird, where it can become crisp, rather than inside, where it is mushy, this is hardly a disadvantage.) You can still make a great pan gravy:

First, pour off all but a few tablespoons of the fat from the turkey's roasting pan. Leave as many of the solids and as much of the dark juices behind as possible. Place the roasting pan over high heat (use two burners if necessary) and add about three cups of stock. Bring to a boil, stirring, then turn the heat to low. If you want a thick gravy, stir in a couple of tablespoons of cornstarch blended with an equal amount of cold water (if that doesn't thicken it to your liking, repeat). Simmer while you carve the bird, and stir in a little butter if you like.

Some people will balk at the inclusion of garlic in the recipe here, but the turkey must derive its flavor from something. And I might suggest a couple of possible variations:

You can roast a mixture of vegetables diced carrots, onions, parsnips, potatoes, turnips or a combination are all good beneath the bird. Or you can substitute a couple of tablespoons of finely minced ginger, a bunch or two of chopped scallions and a couple of tablespoons of soy sauce for the tarragon.

But perhaps this is too heretical. You'll already be presenting a bird with a surprising new look.

Recipe: 45 Minute Roast Turkey


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